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NOTTINGHAM, England â€” Whisper it, but an English city could lead the way in reimagining urban areas for the post-mall, carbon-neutral age.
My hometown of Nottingham is famous for a few things: Robin Hood; a once (and surely soon again) mighty football team in Nottingham Forest; a claim to the oldest pub in the country; and now a half-demolished shopping center creating an eyesore in the heart of the city.
The story of the Broadmarsh mall has turned this corner of the Midlands into a curious case study in how cities tackle declining high-street retail exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Itâ€™s also a test of how cash-strapped local authorities can source investment to green urban areas and curb emissions.
The Broadmarsh shopping center, a sprawling brutalist structure with multi-story parking lots once linked by grim sky bridge walkways, opened in the 1970s across an expanse of the city center roughly the size of 10 football pitches.
It was never a treasured venue. But its prime location â€”Â wedged between the market square and main station, not far from Nottinghamâ€™s hilltop castle or the old neighborhood of lace workshops â€”Â made it an unavoidable landmark for anyone crossing the city center.
Since I can remember, the question of what to do about this unloved piece of architecture has been a favorite topic of conversation in pubs, cafÃ©s and around the dinner table. Many a front page of the Evening Post, delivered on my paper rounds in the mid-1990s, splashed news about the shopping centerâ€™s fate. The debate accelerated through the 2000s as, one by one, shops housed in the mall started to close.
By the beginning of 2019 a contractor had been signed up for a Â£250 million redevelopment by Broadmarshâ€™s owner, Intu. The deal would spruce up the dilapidated building with new glass frontage and glossy branding, as well as add a bowling alley and cinema. Despite fears it wouldnâ€™t happen, the scaffolding went up.
Then came the pandemic. An already struggling retail industry collapsed, and Intu went bankrupt. Nottinghamâ€™s cash-strapped council was handed a sprawling inner-city building site that, in its half-demolished state, looks more like a warzone than anything else.
With the site primed for redevelopment but original plans abandoned, the decades-old question of what could replace Broadmarsh suddenly required an urgent answer.
The results of a public consultation ruled out another mall. â€œWe had 3,000 responses and I havenâ€™t read one that said can you create a shopping center,â€ Nottinghamâ€™s Labour Council leader David Mellen told the Guardian.
Instead, local architects are mocking up utopian visions of open gardens and public amphitheaters to help Nottingham meet its ambition to become the U.K.â€™s first climate-neutral city by 2028, two decades before the national target.
Other ideas I gathered in a (very) informal poll on a recent visit home included transforming the space into allotments to allow inner-city dwellers to grow their greens and curb air pollution, or recreating the old medieval streets that were torn up to build the mall. It would be â€œlike one big museum,â€ my mate Dave suggested, and â€œmake Nottingham more of a tourist venue and create jobs.â€
The problem, of course, is that thereâ€™s no cash. Nottinghamâ€™s local government is already around Â£1 billion in debt, making the prospect of hefty public investment in Broadmarsh unlikely. The council says it needs London to cough up Â£20 million just to finish demolishing the girders and concrete left in the Broadmarsh ruins.
That means any new project,Â no matter the scale,Â will need private investment.
To figure out a plan, designer Thomas Heatherwick â€” of Londonâ€™s failed Garden Bridge fame â€”Â has been tasked with setting out a â€œnew visionâ€ for what the councilâ€™s press release calls a â€œonce-in-a-generation opportunity we have here in Nottingham.â€
No matter the outcome in Nottingham, todayâ€™s twin crises, the economic fallout of the pandemic and the increasing urgency of adapting to climate change, mean cities across Europe and beyond will have to reinvent themselves â€” and dig deep to find the funds to do so.